On Day of Sadness, Sacredness of Caregiving Emerges
Today is a really sad day for several reasons.
First of all, today marks the 7th anniversary of my mother’s death. She died in 2007 from a combination of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (brought on by smoking way too many cigarettes for more than half of her 80-plus years on this earth) and Alzheimer’s disease.
Watching her physical decline was heartbreaking. Mom started experiencing breathing issues in the late 1990s and was given a battery of medications to try to ease her distress. She periodically was prescribed steroids for her lungs, which made her skin very fragile. I can remember stopping by my parents’ home for after work. I walked up to the front door and looked down to see a pool of blood, which seemed to suggest that a mass murderer had been at their house. I went in and found Mom’s leg wrapped in gauze. She told me that she had been out working in the yard and rubbed up against something – she didn’t know what. Whatever it was hadn’t torn her pants or the knee-high hose she was wearing. However, it had torn the skin on her shin to the tune of 36 stitches.
While this part of the decline was horrendous, watching Mom’s mental decline was even more traumatic. By this point, my parents had returned to West Texas, where they hoped the dry climate would help Mom’s failing lungs. Perhaps it did, but what also happened within two years of their return was the emergence of Mom’s memory loss. She started becoming paranoid that Dad was stealing from her (he wasn’t). Dad didn’t know how to deal with her memory loss and instead took a black-and-white approach that sent Mom into a seething rage. She would no longer let him manage her medications, instead opting to self-medicate herself. Because of her memory loss, that decision meant she would either forget to take her medications or would over-medicate herself. That led to numerous trips to the emergency room when she started having severe trouble breathing. It all became a vicious circle as Mom became more and more isolated, her lungpower decreased and her mental abilities decline. My brother and I watched from afar, not sure what to do to help.
By 2005, it became evident that something had to be done when I was sitting in a doctor’s appointment with my parents and the nurse found that Mom’s blood pressure was 80/40 – and neither of my parents’ expressed concern about this situation. I was determined at that point to assume caregiving duties, which totally transformed my life in so many ways over the two years that Mom lived. It was the hardest job I ever have had in my life – and one of the most important ones I’ve ever undertaken.
So the second part of today’s sadness comes from the announcement that former Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee has been placed in hospice due to declining health during the past two months. Bradlee, who is 93, has battled Alzheimer’s disease for a number of years and his condition has rapidly deteriorated during the past two years. Currently, he sleeps all but four hours a day and no longer really eats.
The reason for my sadness is that Bradlee – along with Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – were instrumental in my choice to go into journalism in college. I watched from afar their work uncovering the Watergate scandal and they showed how the media could effectively shed light on the dark side of politics and government.
I don’t know if Bradlee has faced the same sort of struggle that my mom did, but his wife, Sally Quinn, also has found the silver lining in caregiving. In a recent C-SPAN interview, Quinn admitted that she initially didn’t think that dealing with her husband’s Alzheimer’s would be that difficult. What she has found is totally different. “It’s been the most horrible experience I’ve ever had, up until recently. He’s still at home. I still have him sleeping in the bed with me and I will, until the end,” she said. “But a certain peace has come over me and this feeling of serenity because the part that I thought was going to be horrible – the caretaking part of it – has really become something almost sacred about it. That’s not drivel. I didn’t expect that. I expected that I would have a nervous breakdown and it would be horrible.”
Watching people succumb to dementia is terribly heartbreaking to watch. What I learned – and appreciate that Quinn also has had this experience – is that the caregiving portion of this journey can be one of the most meaningful parts of your life!
Primary Sources for This Sharepost:
C-SPAN. (2014). Sally Quinn discusses husband Ben Bradlee’s health.
Farhi, P. (2014). The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee now in hospice care. The Washington Post.